On not being your own best friend

If you listen to those who tell you to be your own best friend, you will end up dressing for dinner - with your TV set; talking your problems over - with your cat; and discovering that your phone rings no better on the hook than off it. If you go out into the world watching out for Numero Uno, who do you think all those you run into will be watching out for? How well will you like the resulting dog-eat-dog world? Have you seen the mysterious hand that is supposed to see to it that, as we each pull the blanket our way, we all remain covered?

The reach of social science is limited and unsure, but one thing has been firmly established: most people deeply need each other's affection and respect. Therefore, the notion that the ego should be the sun of a person's universe violates what science tells us. People who look to themselves for alliance and emotional sustenance, and in the process cut themselves off from others, pay dearly. They feel unappreciated, neglected, lonely, afloat in a hostile void. They are more likely to be sick, emotionally and otherwise, to be committed to mental institutions, even to commit suicide, than those who are looped in with others.

In recent years, data collected by Daniel Yankelovich, the University of Michigan, and others suggest the majority of Americans has turned inside, in varying degrees to be sure. Such retreat into ego has many sources. It draws on our historical origins in which the individual was valued above all, a notion promoted in eras when the church and the monarch were oppressive. It has been fanned by affluence, which allows people to indulge ego and makes it seem that they need not be much concerned with others and community.

Pop-psychology adds fuel to the fire by promoting a quest for a fullm life for ego in a world without sacred vows, social obligations, or lasting commitments. And the government, by stepping in as the community of last resort, providing nursing homes for the elderly, charity for the poor, loans for students, has both promoted the retreat from others and community and been propelled by it.

Most recently, however, excess government has become the political theme of the nation. The moral vacuum of a self-centered world troubles many. Affluence is gone and the need for care and caring and community is more evident.

A renewed American will require more than fixing the infrastructure, spurring high tech, competing better overseas, and increasing productivity. A renewed spirit must accompany and help sustain economic reconstruction.

Two core values provide the essential ingredients - all we need to reconstruct our ethical world. First we need mutuality, the caring and affection of persons for one another. Not more social workers, psychoanalysts, and bingo-organizers, but more love flowing forth and back among family members, friends, even neighbors. The best way to receive it is to give it. Be someone else's best friend.m

This is not a cult of altruism, of sacrificing self for others, nor is it a calculating exchange of favors. It is a long-run investment in bonds to one another that carries its own reward, tending to create and sustain the return flow. The vital reciprocity distinguishes mutuality from tragic love or self-sacrifice.

Likewise with respect. The best way to gain it is not by jumping higher than the next guy, or amassing a higher pile of dough, but by treating others the same way you wish them to treat you - with respect.

The second cornerstone is civilitym, the concern for social order we all share. While we can and often must compete with each other, we have made too much of the virtues of the contest and too little of the need to sustain the community in which all competition is embedded. Even football has a set of agreed-upon limitations to the means used - rules and referees.

However, our economic and political world, individuals, corporations, and interest groups increasingly compete as if maximizing their own good will automatically guarantee the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Instead we must learn again to compete with one eye on the shared world, the common good. We must remind one another that if we each go to the forest and fell a tree, someone must reseed the forest. If we wait until the denuded hills teach us the values of foresight, husbanding our resources, and investing for the longer-run future, we shall be wanting for decades.

True, balancing self-interest with concern for the community can be overdone, we can go too far, limiting our enterprise with ever more demands in the name of social causes, the environment, the United Nations, esthetic values, and so on. But this is hardly our current condition. Precisely because the government has proven to be a wasteful and alienating custodian of shared goods and a shared future, we all must make a somewhat greater contribution to community. We must balance watching out for self with watching out for others, and for our shared world.

Without mutuality and civility, we are but an assortment of cut-off, isolated , lonely, and hurting individuals. Sustained by these values, reconstruction of our personal bonds, families, and communities cannot be far behind.

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